How To Stop Talking Past One Another

I hear you but I'm not listening t-shirtReading time – 3.1 minutes; viewing time – 4:58  .  .  .

Gotta wonder how righties and lefties can stop talking past one another and join in order to start solving some of our vexing challenges. Here’s a key piece of what has to happen if we are to progress. First, some context.

The pundits have consistently been either wrong or clueless about the reasons for Donald Trump’s success at conniving support. Actually, he and all the Republican candidates (with the possible exception of Rand Paul) get righty support for some solid and important reasons.

There are millions of Americans who feel disrespected and forgotten by their government and their country and they are largely correct. For example, we are decades into supply side economics that has abandoned them and stolen their American dream. They have had catastrophic lies shoved down their throats and nobody in power is listening to them. The Republican presidential candidates play up to their anger, telling them they are right and mouthing various forms of “screw you” at government, which is pretty much what all those people want to say to our government. These folks are supremely angry and, like most people who have been wronged, they want to hit back. Here’s a metaphor for that.

Think for a moment of the people you know who have gone through a messy, painful divorce. They lash out irrationally and meanly at the same person they posed with in loving wedding photos just a few years earlier. They run up horrendous expenses and drain the savings just so that it hurts the other, even as their actions hurt themselves. They feel wronged and want to “hit back,” regardless of the price they themselves must pay. Think: people voting against their own interests.

The far right has spent decades demonizing government. Reagan campaigned and won telling us that government is the problem. That Big Lie lives on and now millions more Americans hate their own government and want to cripple it, so they vote for candidates who shut down the government, which curtails services righties themselves want. The Republicans go googly-eyed over national debt and screech their demands for lower taxes and small government (“small enough to drown it in the bathtub”). Then they enlarge government and either raise taxes, increase debt or both. Government isn’t the problem; lying, disingenuous, self-serving politicians are, and righties are way past being fed up with them. Think: hate for insiders and support for outsiders.

These emotionally charged righty voters do not and will not respond to logical arguments because they are consumed by fight-or-flight messages overwhelming their brains. That’s what causes Trump rally attendees to assault protesters, chant “Seig heil!” and wave Confederate banners. Forget about appealing to these folks with talk of compassion. They have to be approached with a message they can hear, so the first step is to find a way for us to hear one another.

We humans make decisions emotionally and justify them rationally. (Read Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence for  more on that.) That’s critical to know, because those angry righties are incensed and, like everyone in such a state, reasoning doesn’t exist for them. It’s not that they don’t want to hear or that they are tone deaf. It’s that they cannot hear.

Perhaps righties can hear that they are being lied to by righty politicians, being sold out yet again. Maybe they can hear that their kids are the ones who are going to die in the desert when the next Republican president decides to invade yet another middle-east country. Tell them that will happen while the politicians’ kids are partying, playing X-Box games of world domination and ignoring those poor and middle class kids bleeding in the sand. That inherent lack of fairness is a powerful message that angry people can hear.

It’s possible righties will respond to hearing that if the Republican politicians have their way and revert healthcare to the way things were, that when these righties get cancer nobody will care. They’ll get minimal help and they will die in pain and way too young. But the pharmaceutical and insurance companies will have made billions off their suffering because the politicians have set it up to work that way.

They’ll really hate it when they learn that Republicans are trashing our education system through funding cuts, so now their kids won’t get an education that helps them to succeed in a vastly changed world. Their kids will live in the Chinese century, because there will no longer be exceptionalism in America. That’s a gut-wrencher for righties.

They, like every human being, make decisions emotionally and justify them rationally, so we have to speak to their gut, first, last and always if we are ever to stop talking past one another.

Just be clear that, because we’re human, you and I function with the same limitations. And we all need to adjust and connect if we are to stop the insanity and begin to fix our problems.

Copyright 2024 by Jack Altschuler
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3 Responses to How To Stop Talking Past One Another
  1. Frank Levy Reply

    It will take a lot more than demonizing the right to resolve the really big issues impacting America and tearing our country apart. Conservatives and liberals will actually have to learn to listen to and talk to each other and agree on the basic facts, if we are ever to devise a solution that meets the emotional and pragmatic needs of both sides, and I hate to say this, “make America great again” – this time for everyone.

    Whether it is right, or fair, and whether we like it or not, it is our (progressives) responsibility to start the conversation. It is our responsibility because conservatives do not see any reason to change their positions, tactics, rhetoric, dogma or unwillingness to compromise or to make deals. As Jack said, “they are mad and they are not going to take it anymore.” They are angry. They feel that their country is in a mess. And they blame, in no particular order; government, women, and pretty much anyone who does not look, pray, talk, or vote like they do.

    We cannot continue to demonize and talk past each other. We have to listen to, and talk to each others’ hearts, intuitions, traditions, and fears. Progressives need to understand what drives, guides, motivates and angers conservatives if we are to be agents of change, not just combatants in a go nowhere battle of words.

    If progressives are ever going to be able to do anything but talk past conservatives we will have to do it by appealing to them on an emotional level, not a factual or “scientific” one. I would even dial that in a little further and add that our emotional appeal will have to be directed at the part of the conservative psyche that progressives have trouble understanding. We do not have to agree with conservative policy, theology, rhetoric, or tactics. We do not have to like what they stand for or their anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-change dogma, but we do have to understand what drives them and what makes them tick if we are ever to bring about the change we know is critical to improving America and the lives of everyone who lives here.

    Believe it or not conservatives and progressives believe in many of the same things – fairness, liberty, freedom, justice, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. But we value and understand each of these values/foundations differently – sometimes very differently.

    For example both conservatives and progressives value freedom and fairness. We just understand them very differently.

    Conservatives see freedom as the right to be left alone, to live their lives as best they can, without any interference or assistance from government – even though conservatives get all sorts of government help they are either unaware of or unwilling to admit.

    To conservatives freedom means “leave me alone to my own devices.” That attitude is why conservatives dislike government. They have been told over and over again that government is intruding in their lives and taking away their freedom. They see “big” government as evil.

    Irony number One: Republicans have increased the size of government and the deficit way more than Democrats in the last 40 years.

    Irony Number Two: conservative politicians have passed laws that are much more intrusive in the lives of individuals than progressives ever thought of doing. Think women, voting, gender and marriage equality, drugs, and others.

    Irony Number Three: The percentage of people on all forms of government assistance (SNAP, Medicaid, and WIC) is significantly higher in Red states than Blue states. Most Red states take in more federal aid dollars than they pay to the federal government in income taxes. Progressives actually do want everyone, especially minorities and women, to have real freedom of opportunity and freedom to control one’s own body and reproductive choices. Conservatives want to control minorities, limit education, increase debt dependency, and control a woman’s right to make important decisions about her life and her reproductive decisions.

    Conservatives and progressives both believe strongly in fairness. We just have totally different ideas of what “fairness” means and how important fairness is in the scheme of things. For conservatives fairness is about NOT giving away resources, time, and/or money to people who do not work or carry their fair share of the load – as they see it. Progressives are much more likely to believe the axiom that we are only as strong as our weakest link, which makes the case for creating programs that might actually provide everyone a truly equal opportunity to thrive and live the American dream (such as it is these days).

    To progressives, fairness means ensuring real equality of opportunity, access to resources such as health care, education, basic human needs and justice are available to everyone regardless of social status, gender, sexual orientation, religion, color, ethnicity or country of origin.

    Conservatives care much more about hierarchy, authority, loyalty (to church – not synagogue or mosque, their version of Christianity and nation), tradition, order and retribution. They see these as values to be highly sought after.

    For conservatives the primary human structure is family, and by extension a strong (seemingly almost always right) benevolent government which will protect and defend us from evil – defined as people who do not look, speak, pray, or vote like them. Conservatives are more likely to believe in, “America, love it or leave it.” Progressives believe that acknowledging our “faults” enables us to fix them and make the country stronger and better for everyone.

    Progressives, while also caring about these things, do not value them as highly as they do caring, compassion, freedom from oppression, justice and fairness that provides equal justice and opportunity for all. For progressives the primary human entity is the individual – justice, and the rights and opportunities of individuals and groups of individuals not to be oppressed by unjust laws, an unjust legal system or an authoritarian government are tantamount.

    Unfortunately, if the current dynamic festering across the land is to ever change, it is incumbent upon progressives to make the effort to initiate the conversation. In order to do that we will need to learn how to reach conservatives on an emotional level that will motivate them to change how they see and do things.

    I read Jack’s examples of how to get conservatives to “wake up” to the dangers lurking on their doorstep (trying to make real world dangers seem personal to them and their children). For years there has been significant evidence of the harm being caused to the water, air and the soil by the refineries of south Texas and Louisiana, and that this pollution has caused significant increases in diseases such as emphysema, COPD, and cancers of all types in adults and children. I had always wondered why these plant managers were not more concerned about environmental/health issues related to their plants. In an interview several years back one on the plant supervisors candidly said, “We don’t trust the science. Even if we did we need our jobs, and we can always get the medical care we need. The company will take care of us. If this crap is even real we’ll still be fine in the end. This is America. This is what we do”

    About a month ago I had the privilege of speaking to the board of the Houston Food Bank. The board is made up of the kinds of people one would expect of a board that provides oversight and leadership to the nation’s largest food bank – successful business people.

    The reason for my being there was to present, from a partner agency perspective, the possible, positive, impact of a new paradigm the Food Bank was planning as part of their next 5 year plan. As part of my presentation I talked about Jesus’ admonition to his disciples (Matthew 25) to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and free the imprisoned as reasons the Food Bank should take on this new effort. I received little to no response, just polite nods. The presentation was going well but I could tell I had not “made the sale.” So, in an attempt “to close the deal” I changed the focus of the discussion from the client’s needs, to the impact this program would have on board members and their companies. I pointed out that once they saw themselves as partners with the HFB clients in ending the cycle of poverty in which they lived, two things would happen: 1) HFB clients would become active and vibrant consumers of the products and services they sold and/or manufactured – cars, furniture, clothes, and new homes. People who are food insecure and struggling to put food on the table are not consumers of durable goods, and services. They do not go to restaurants, or movies, or sporting events. And 2) they would put the Food Bank out of business. If the new program succeeded in breaking the cycle of poverty, ultimately, there would no longer be a need, or there would be a significantly reduced need, for the Houston Food Bank. That they heard. That is what motivated them to approve a $3 million a year increase in the budget to fund this new program.

    I went back to my old salesman days and remembered I had to talk to the board in ways that made them feel they were getting something from the deal – that their sense of fairness, freedom, order, and tradition were being paid attention to, and considered when asking them to do more for those they already helped. They liked seeing themselves as partners in a change they saw as virtuous, fair and right. They felt that they were the big winners.

    I’ll say it again. We need to understand what is important to, drives, and motivates conservatives, not just demonize them or call them ignorant fools. We need to learn how to talk to, and “reason with” their emotions, and their sense of fairness, freedom, loyalty, hierarchy, retribution and order if we ever truly want to be the change makers we think we are. We need to listen to and talk with conservatives in ways that make it possible for them to hear us, and to see themselves as winners in this “new” America which is frightening, complex, and confusing to them.

    I strongly believe that if we are to bridge the ever widening gap between conservatives and progressives, we (progressives) will have to change how we talk to conservatives so that they feel like they are winning, not just capitulating. If we are to ever bridge the ever widening gap between conservatives and progressives, we (progressives) will have to change how we talk to conservatives so they will stop being afraid of those who do not look, speak, pray or vote the way they do and the terrible changes they see in “their” country that they feel is no longer theirs.

    If we can do that, we can make the American dream of freedom, justice, equality, and opportunity a reality for everyone.

    For more on this read Jonathan Haidt’s, “The Righteous Mind – Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.”

  2. Allan Shuman Reply

    Beautifully written, and spoken, Jack, and therein lies a (the?) dilemma; e.g., the NRA has skillfully addressed the masses’ guts . . . WE MUST PROTECT OURSELVES . . . in a manner that defies our logic to penetrate. Same deal, and maybe even more broadly effective with the Islamophobics . . . WE MUST PROTECT OURSELVES . . . It’s not just that they got there first; it’s that addresses to the gut are generally appeals to fear . . . and it’s fear of the immediate, not fear of the distant . . . and that’s on the right wing’s home court. And those of us who have operated on the premise that the ones with the better reasoned positions will ultimately hold sway . . . forget home court disadvantage . . . if our intended audience can’t hear us, we’re not even in the game.

  3. Jim Altschuler Reply

    I could not possibly agree more. I’m dubious, however, about being able to find a way to make those who have no interest in hearing able to hear a viewpoint and an understanding other than their own.

    The human animal is reticent to change ANYTHING, let alone a fundamental belief that they hold. And that is compounded by the fact that it is very difficult for any person to hear when they are shouting as loudly as they can, at the top of their voice as the expression goes. All that anyone within earshot can hear or think is that which is being screamed at (or by) them. Almost all of the Republican candidates scream, and Sanders screams. Occasionally some of them actually scream something that makes some sense. But constant screaming is just another form of winning by intimidation, being the biggest (read “loudest”) screamer; screaming every time someone turns on your microphone.

    I, for one, am sick and tired of being screamed at, bullied and treated like an idiot. I am NOT an idiot nor are most of the people that I come in contact with. STOP THE DAMNED SCREAMING and say something clearly that makes some sense (as opposed to the blather that we have been bombarded with over the past 8 months).